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Big Honors For African-Americans' Small 'Firsts'


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up: What better way to start the new year than with some poetry? We'll speak with scholar, poet and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove. She's just edited and published a new anthology of 20th century American poetry. She's going to tell us more about it in just a few minutes.

But first, in addition to planning new projects and closing out old business, this is the time of year when we often pause to remember the people we've lost over the course of the last year, and as in every year, we lost many well known people: tech visionary Steve Jobs, singer Amy Winehouse, Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor. But there were many others who died in 2011 that lived lives of more quiet accomplishment. They include the first African-American milk delivery man in Gary, Indiana, the first black postal clerk in Winter Park, Florida and the first black meter reader from Baltimore Gas and Electric.

Now, these achievements may seem small, but Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson argues that, added together, they, quote, "bear witness to how far this country has come and how it got to where it is." Wilkerson honored these firsts in the New York Times magazine's recent obituary issue, "The Lives They Lived." She's with us now to talk more about her essay and why these lives mattered.

Wilkerson is also the author of "The Warmth of Other Suns" and a professor of journalism at Boston University, and she's with us from member station WABE in Atlanta.

Welcome. Happy New Year.

ISABEL WILKERSON: Oh, Happy New Year to you.

MARTIN: Now, you know, we've all heard of the designation, the first African-American, dot, dot, dot, whether it's in an obituary or a job announcement. It has to be on a - it's in your bio, too. I know that, usually, when we, you know, bring you onto the program, we talk about the fact that you're the first African-American, you know, woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, and you were the first African-American to win for individual achievement. So, clearly, this means something to us.

WILKERSON: It does. The beauty of these people is that they made small steps that, added together, created new opportunities for all of us that we kind of take for granted. And it was, in some ways, the ordinary-ness of their positions that bring such power, I think, to what they did.

These were very small steps made by people you've never heard of, who, added together, helped change the century that they were a part of. All of these people did this during this period of time when they were really pretty much alone in the things that they did, and we take it for granted because all of the things that they did are now just a part of the landscape.

There are black tellers and black probation officers and black bus drivers everywhere. But in all of these places, there had to be someone who was the first.

MARTIN: One of the things that you mention in the essay is that the mentions came from family members writing their loved ones' obituaries. And I have to imagine that, in some cases, perhaps the parting one may have written some notes himself or herself that they wanted included in this kind of final mention. I'm just wondering what you think that means.

WILKERSON: In some cases, these were written by the spouses of people who had been with them at the moment that they made this small step into this new place that people like them had never been in before.

In other cases, there were children who saw some small mention or a plaque and had not realized it until the time came to write the obituary, and that's how it got into the final story about them. So the awareness of this first in all of these cases came to the people in different ways.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about African-Americans who were first in their careers who passed away in 2011. My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson, herself a first. She wrote the essay, "A First Time for Everything," for the New York Times magazine, their annual live issue, their obituaries issue. She's also the author of "The Warmth of Other Suns." It's a story of the Great Migration.

You know, you used a word earlier that I want to pick up on. You talked about the fact that many of these people were alone. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

WILKERSON: They were alone. And I think that's the inspiration of all of this, really, is that these were quiet steps made by individuals alone, applying for some position in Saginaw, Michigan or in San Jose, California or in Tuscaloosa, Alabama by themselves. They did not have the force of some organization behind them. There had been, in many cases, no protests that led to their getting these positions.

They were taking a chance during a time of great change, anyway, and there was a sense that things needed to open up. This came during a time of great ferment and turmoil throughout the country overall in the years preceding the civil rights movement, and then thereafter.

And so these were the individual people who were stepping into that void, and I find inspirational that they were doing this without great fanfare. They had not been written about. They were not seeking to be written about, and yet they were making history on their own.

MARTIN: Were there any stories that just stick with you that you just cannot get out of your head?

WILKERSON: Well, one of the people actually who turned up in the obituary list was someone who was not even black. We don't include him in the 300 or more. But it turned out that someone turned up because he had not been the first black bus driver in this county in Mississippi, but he had been someone who had helped train the first black bus driver in this county in Mississippi. And his family thought it noteworthy to acknowledge that he had had a hand in that, which is a reminder that these moments - these moments where someone had to break through - the moment of their hiring was - required many things to happen. It was a moment of anxiety, of uncertainty, of taking a risk and risk-taking by all kinds of people in order to make it happen. And it's a reminder that it took a lot for these people to get these positions, however humble they may appear.

MARTIN: You know, we're not just talking about people, first, from the civil rights era. One of the people that you mentioned in the essay, Ralph Tyson, became the first black federal judge for the middle district of Louisiana in 1998. What do you think when you look at that and you say, 1998, somebody's still the first to do X, Y or Z?

WILKERSON: I think it's an indication that we've come a long way as the list bears out, but that we still have a long way to go. It's humbling to realize that there are still positions and places in this country where there will be firsts going into the future, and that we are not quite there yet.

MARTIN: Isabel Wilkerson is the author of "The Warmth of Other Suns." It is a sweeping epic about the Great Migration. It's received many, many awards, including the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-Fiction. She is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, the first black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize. And she is a professor of journalism at Boston University. She was with us from member station WABE in Atlanta.

Isabel Wilkerson, thank you so much for speaking with us, and Happy New Year to you.

WILKERSON: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.